Tangier Island has always been a place of intrigue in my mind – a mythical island of less than 500 people, disconnected from daily life. When we were young, my sister took an overnight boat trip there with family friends. A hurricane led to a near stranding and peaked my interest in visiting. In medical school, we learned of Tangier Disease, a genetic disorder causing reduced levels of HDL (good cholesterol), named after the island’s inhabitants who have a rather shallow genetic pool.
So when Amir suggested a day trip, I Googled “tangier ferry” and discovered Tangier Rappahannock Cruises, a 2 hour ferry service that leaves from the coastal fishing town of Reedville, VA. I recommend selecting the same-day return trip, and skipping the suggested lunch at the Chesapeake House (more on that in a bit). Total cost round-trip for the two of us was just $57.24 including all taxes and fees. While you can just show up at the dock and buy tickets the same day, I recommend booking online to save yourself time and ensure your reservation.
We sat on the bow to get the best vantage point of blue skies and glassy seas. Osprey, fishing boats and crumbling barns float by, demanding the attention of your camera lens. I, as usual, captured them through the lens of my iPhone, Amir through his Canon DSLR.
Tangier soon turned from a distant mirage to a beautiful green world just ahead. The skyline was low, consisting mostly of simple two-story houses with a rare deviation in height for a church steeple and a water tower. As we entered the man-made channel lined with little white houses and docks, our ship’s captain revealed that Tangier is the world’s source for soft shell crabs. The crabbers live in these tiny white shacks – shacks that are filled with blue crabs, checked diligently on the hour in anticipation of the golden moment when the crab molts its shell. The crab is then scooped up and placed on ice or into a freezer and sold to restaurants for a feast later that day. It’s a practice as unique as the island itself.
We stepped off the boat and onto the dock, the end of which was lined with locals in golf carts offering 15 minute tours of the island, and friendly women with sun-aged skin offering coupons for the best lunch spots (there are only 7). We opted to skip the carts and create our own walking tour.
Instantly we were struck by the strange collision of worlds. Tangier is part what you would expect – fishermen, boats, flip flops and simple life at a slow pace – everything I love about Chesapeake Bay living. But it’s also part Cuba, part 3rd world country. For an isolated island, bringing goods in is expensive, so you see signs of old everywhere you turn. 1970s motorbikes, rusted chain link fences, refrigerators from 3 generations past. If you want new and shiny, this is not the place for you.
And while old often equates with charm, there’s something a bit off in Tangier. Like bringing things to the island, disposing of them is also a costly task. So, garbage is everywhere – broken down golf carts, bottomless boats, and 20 year old Pepsi cans littering the land and the water. It makes you cringe. It doesn’t fit. A proud people so dependent upon nature for their existence, so careless in protecting it.
For a half second my mind contemplated the missed opportunity – “What if they just picked up the trash?” “What if they had some eco-friendly activities?” I imaged the potential for increased tourism, and the subsequent revenue that could benefit this island and its people. And then I wondered, maybe this is deliberate.
We decided to try Fisherman’s Corner for lunch. We entered the brightly painted, simple square building to find a bustling room tightly packed with tables of both tourists and locals. The menu was typical Chesapeake Bay fare – she crab soup, crab dip, fried shrimp, crab cakes and soft shell crabs. Clearly we had to try the soft shells. The food was simple, home-cooked and a tad pricy, but delicious. My soft shell crab was sandwiched between two slices of white Wonder bread. While I was initially skeptical of my minimalist bun, when topped with the zesty tartar sauce, the flavors combined perfectly. We skipped dessert since we’d already cheated and devoured hand-dipped ice cream cones on our earlier walk.
We continued our ambulatory tour of the island, scoping out the picturesque little houses and the oddly placed graveyards in each front yard. Tangier is only 4 feet above sea level and losing 10-15 feet of land mass per year, so space is limited. A brief scan of graves reveals repeating names – Crockett, Pruett, Pruett, Crockett, Crockett. I begin to better understand the origins of Tangier Disease.
There are two churches, one fire station, one police officer and one school. On an island with 450 people, you make do. The sign outside the fire station explains that until very recently, every household was provided with a single leather bucket. When a fire broke out, the entire town would arrive and form a bucket brigade. I wondered what hurricane preparations took place today.
In just 3 short hours, we’d experienced 90% of what Tangier has to offer. We heard a dialect I can only describe best as Old English garble. We marveled at the eccentric locals like bird watchers spotting a never-before-seen species. Tangier is a dichotomy of beautiful and ugly, but special none-the-less.